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Washing Clothes by Hand
by staff writer

Many people make the decision to give up their clothes dryer -- at least during the summer -- to cut back on power use. Giving up your washing machine is much harder choice, but it is certainly possible to get your clothes just as clean with hand washing. There are quite a few tools available to make the job a little easier, but the only things you absolutely must have are plenty of water, a large container, some kind of soap or detergent, and a clothes line or drying rack.

Prepare your laundry by separating them into lights and darks. This isn't strictly necessary unless your darks tend to bleed color or if you plan on using hot water to wash. Many people find that cold water works just as well, and some use water warmed by the sun in the summer. If you use sun-heated water, keep in mind that you'll need a lot of water. Ideally, fill a large washtub in the morning and leave it outside to heat up for several hours.

Fill up your container you'll use to hand wash your cloths with plenty of water. You can use a bathtub, a galvanized or plastic washtub, or even a metal water trough. As long as the container is very large and watertight, it'll do the job, but shallower containers are easier to work with. You can save water by using separate tubs for washing and rinsing if you plan on doing several loads of laundry at once.

Add some kind of soap or detergent to the water -- almost anything will work. You can grate homemade lye soap or laundry soap bars (available at most stores) into the water, you can use about a tablespoon of organic powdered detergent, or you can make your own laundry soap. Regular bar soap works fine, too. If you have nothing else, a tablespoon of dishwashing liquid or cheap shampoo will do the trick, but avoid using any kind of moisturizing commercial shampoo or body wash because they're hard to rinse out.

Put your laundry in and agitate thoroughly. You can use your hands or a long wooden stirrer for this purpose, but one of the most effective tools is a modified toilet plunger. Cut diamond-shaped holes into the rubber of a (clean!) plunger to allow water to flow through it, and plunge away at your clothes. Depending on how dirty your clothes are, you may need to keep this up for several minutes.

You can use a washboard to scrub out stains. Add a bit of extra soap or detergent to the stained area and scrub as if you're cleaning the washboard. Washboards sold by specialty shops can be expensive, but if you live near the border of Mexico (or know someone who does), they can be purchased in border towns for about five dollars. If you don't have a washboard, just add a bit of soap and rub the fabric against itself.

Once the clothes are clean, wring them out thoroughly before you rinse. You can buy a wringer for this, but they're quite expensive. You can put the wet clothes on a table in small piles and use a rolling pin to "squish" out most of the water, or wrap up bundles in a towel and stomp out the water. Avoid wringing by hand if possible -- it's not very effective and will wear you out quickly.

Rinse the clothes two or three times in clean water until there's no more soap left, wring again, and hang to dry. Beating your clothes with a thick dowel rod or stick occasionally while they dry will help prevent stiffness. You can also make a homemade laundry softener to put in the rinse water by mixing 1 part vinegar, 1 part baking soda, and 2 parts water.

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If all of this sounds like too much work, several companies manufacturer inexpensive crank-powered washing machines that use very little water. Inexpensive but sturdy models that hold a small amount of clothing are sometimes sold for as little as $50. Larger models that hold a full-sized load of laundry are much more expensive, but they have few moving parts and will last for decades.